Lon Chaney’s only talkie was a remake of his silent Tod Browning hit The Unholy Three – had he lived, the star might have done talking versions of his other vehicles (after all, there were remountings of London After Midnight and The Hunchback of Notre Dame without him). This remake of Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928) gives Walter Huston a chance to go all out under gruesome make-up (the cheek scar is particularly disturbing) as ‘Deadlegs’ Flint, a brawny-armed cripple who hauls and wheels himself around a Kurtz-like African enclave where he uses a magic act — involving the living severed head of Portuguese sexpot assistant Tula (Lupe Velez) – and grotesque masks/hats to convince ‘the blacks’ that he’s got powerful voodoo.
With tattooed slob Hogan (Mitchell Lewis) and comedy cockney Cookie (Forrester Harvey), Flint runs an ivory-poaching gang who seem to be into all manner of other rapacious business (late in the film, he pulls a bag of uncut diamonds out of his tattered trousers). Flint’s main hobby is plotting revenge on Whitehall (C. Henry Gordon), the man who stamped on his spine and belittled him (‘he sneered’), which is accomplished by abducting the daughter Whitehall had with Flint’s unseen ex-wife and having her raised in a convent for eighteen years, then turned over to ‘a house’ in Zanzibar (to the East, of course) and brought to his lair as a bedraggled, drunk, diseased whore to be generally taunted for a bit until her father can be lured there to be killed so the natives can indulge their custom of burning the daughter alive during the father’s funeral. Phew – this is a whole lot more repulsive and elaborate than the slightly similar scheme of which Huston is a victim in The Shanghai Gesture, and there’s a pretty guessable last act twist signalled when Whitehall apparently slumps in abject horror only for his racking sobs to turn out to be uncontrollable laughter. Frankly, the film’s relish of appalling horrors and cruelty pretty much makes it the Serbian Film of 1932.
This is so sleazy that the hero, Dr Kingsland (Conrad Nagel), is an unshaven drug addict, though he cleans up after he meets Ann (Virginia Bruce), the long-suffering heroine – the film’s cure for ‘byang root’ addiction is to inflict cuts on the patient’s chest and dunk him in the swamp so the leeches can suck out his root-infused blood. Given how impossible the situation is, Nagel and Bruce give rather decent accounts of themselves, but Huston is either wonderful or terrible or both but is at least entertaining, though his maniac is tinged with a campiness Chaney would never have gone in for. Leon Gordon’s script is based on a play by Chester M. DeVonde and Kilbourn Gordon – which perhaps explains why it’s an African adventure that spends most of its running time inside Flint’s hut of evil and the adjoining barbecue pit of sacrifice.
Much crucial action takes place offscreen … we meet Ann as a convent girl and then again as a wretch, but her progressive degradation is conveyed through speeches (some pre-code explicit about what’s happened to her) but missing are any ‘horrible realisation’ scenes, where for instance she finds out Hogan isn’t the missionary he poses as to get her away from the convent or has her first meeting with the fiendish Flint. Similarly, the finale seems truncated – there ought to be a scene where angry natives burn Flint, who has made an attempt at reform and self-sacrifice, to death but all we get is his pet chimp fishing his amulet out of the ashes. It’s appallingly racist, of course, but depicts most white men in Africa as exploitative bastards – one of the things Flint has done to undermine Whitehall is to disrupt the latter’s slaving enterprise – who deserve death.
The voodoo rites, which seem modelled on the Hindu practice of suttee, are mostly dance-based mask festivals and there are some spectacularly ugly examples of faux African totem pole disguises. Directed by William Cowen.